Archived Story

Fire chief pushes for schedule change; council split on decision

Published 11:24pm Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Austin City Council will once again decide whether to change the city fire department’s employee scheduling.

Austin Fire Chief Mickey Healey.
Austin Fire Chief Mickey Healey.

Council members voted 4-3 to bring a motion to the council’s next public meeting on switching the Austin Fire Department’s scheduling from an alternating night- and day-shift schedule to a 24 hours on/48 hours off schedule. Council members Steve King, Jeremy Carolan (a part-time firefighter), Janet Anderson and Judy Enright voted to put the issue on the next public meeting agenda, while Roger Boughton, Jeff Austin, and Michael Jordahl wanted to have more time to consider the issue.

The council was torn during an almost 45-minute discussion about the issue, which has come up repeatedly since before Fire Chief Mickey Healey was hired in 2010.

Under the current schedule, full-time firefighters operate on a nine-day schedule. They are required to report in for 10 hours, or from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., for three days, followed by three days of 14-hour shifts from 5 p.m. to 7 a.m., and then three days off. Part-time firefighters work under a similar nine-day schedule, as they’re split into three tiers and called in based on which shift their group is assigned.

Healey and other firefighters have recently told city officials and council members a recent increase of injuries and vacation time requested will leave the department undermanned toward the end of this month, with only one full-time firefighter at the city firehouse for several days unless some employees were paid to work overtime.

Healey came before the council during its work session Monday to once again ask for the department to switch to a 24/48 schedule, where full-time employees work 24 hours straight starting at 7 a.m., then have two days off, while part-time employees will be the first to get called on their scheduled day, then fall into second- and third-group rankings for the next two days. Healey told the council he was “adamantly against” the 10/14 scheduling, calling it a nightmare.

“I know it’s been used in other areas, and it hasn’t worked for other … fire departments,” Healey said. “Everybody else has been switched back.”

Healey approached the city last week with the request, saying the switch would help alleviate the department’s upcoming scheduling snafu, benefit firefighters by using a simpler schedule and could potentially save overtime costs for the city. He has requested the switch several times in the past, and council members discussed fire department scheduling in 2009 under former Fire Chief Dan Wilson’s recommendation to switch to a 10/14 shift.

City Administrator Jim Hurm told the council that city officials had a few reservations with the scheduling switch. While full-time firefighters work about 2,912 hours each year, a scheduling shift could decrease the number of “engaged hours,” or hours spent doing various duties. Firefighters also sometimes get paid to sleep or take breaks while on duty during down time.

The city estimated firefighters currently put in about 1,815 engaged hours each year, assuming employees are engaged all the time during 10-hour shifts and about five hours during 14-hour shifts. Hurm and other city officials estimate firefighters would only work about 11 engaged hours during a 24-hour shift, or about 1,331 hours per year.

Hurm said the city wants to know whether the switch would decrease costs for the city, whether the city would have to pay additional overtime (firefighters already have three hours of overtime each week built into their schedule), whether the city would have to hire more full-time employees and how the fire department would address the decrease in engaged hours.

Healey dismissed the city’s estimates, saying the city would still pay the same employee hours under either schedule and argued firefighters are consistently engaged, even if they’re resting.

“The same number of days are being worked, all year long,” he said. “You don’t stop if you’re resting.”

Scheduling the issue

Carolan, King and Anderson initially urged the council to proceed with what they said was an easy decision, based on past discussions on the schedule. King, the son of a longtime Austin firefighter, said the current schedule places an undue toll on firefighters’ health as they switch working days and nights.

“That’s hard on the body,” King said. “It’s ridiculous, it’s unsafe, and it doesn’t cost the city any money [to switch schedules].”

King further explained the council would follow the advice of any other department head when it came to scheduling matters.

“I can’t see another department in the city that would challenge on scheduling,” he said.

Other council members argued they didn’t have enough time to research the matter. Boughton, Austin and Jordahl were concerned the council was acting too hastily.

“I feel like this is being railroaded through,” Boughton said.

The issue was added under the work session reports as Healey brought it before city officials last week, and Hurm said city staff didn’t have enough time to research how the scheduling switch could affect the city. Mayor Tom Stiehm thought the matter should go before the council as a preliminary discussion and have it added to the agenda, though council members and the Herald weren’t provided with preliminary research until Monday night.

Stiehm said he supported Healey’s request, as Healey had done a good job running the department thus far and few, if any, problems have arisen in the year and a half since the fire chief last asked for a scheduling switch.

“You just let your chief run the department,” Stiehm said.

Austin wasn’t as confident in the decision, telling other council members the vote could have adverse effects not just for firefighters but for other city departments.

“If we deal with this issue, we are going to feel some repercussions throughout all departments in the city,” Austin said. “Good, bad or indifferent, I think we’re going to hear from other departments in this regard, so to jump to a conclusion tonight is not prudent in my eyes.”

King said the council could risk negatively affecting fire department morale and showing a lack of confidence in the department.

“To me, this is a smack right in their face if you say, ‘I’m not willing to change it,’” King said. “There’s not a dime of difference. … The reality is, citizens are safer, the department is safer, the guys are better at what they’re doing, continuing the good morale at no cost to the city.”

Council members will vote on the issue at the next public meeting. Austin and Boughton said a vote so soon left council members little time to ask questions before the public meeting, which the council traditionally uses to pass motions and resolutions on issues they’ve already discussed. King and Anderson pointed out that council members could seek guidance from city staff until March 18, the next time the council meets.

The council came under scrutiny several years ago for its involvement in the fire department scheduling, among other matters. Several council members, including King, Anderson and former council member Marian Clennon, which eventually led to reports in 2010 criticizing the fire department’s lack of organizational structure and the city council’s over-involvement in fire department affairs, among other issues. Former Fire Chief Dan Wilson retired from the city at the end of January 2010.


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  • Austinwatch

    Here we go again…the fire department whining again! Sure, it’s a commendable job, but who else gets paid for sleeping, sitting around, having fun, and having their families hanging around the station all the time?

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    • ellen72

      Maybe you should apply then, if it is so fun and easy.

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    • kh

      I don’t want to hear you whine when your house is on fire, and the guys are tired. Get over it and let the fire department and the chief do their jobs. Being a fire fighter is a thankless job, the people do it because they love it. Let’s see you try out next time,.,,,

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  • bob harvery

    Two thoughts: Jeremy Carolan should not be voting on anything if he is a part-time firefighter. That is an obvious conflict of interest. Secondly, what job get paid to sleep? Talk about a disservice to the tax payer!

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  • jk

    Easy to sit back and criticize, but if your house is on fire at 3am…..you ll probably wish you had well rested and accessable fire personnel to help.

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    • bob harvery

      Precisely my point JK. They should be sleeping during the day if they are going to be working an overnight shift. If there is a fire in the middle of their nap time, then how well rested are they really? Anyone who has worked the night shift will tell you that you sleep during the day. This should be no different.

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      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1395131840 Marian J. Clennon

        If it were only that easy. Their schedule is 3 days 7 am to 5 pm, 24 hours off, 3 days 5 pm to 7 am, then three days off. Could you have any normal sleep pattern if you were awake for your shift working this schedule? The point is they are ready to show up at your house when you need them. If you think that this is an easy job, I invite you to apply and take the test the next time they are taking applications.

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      • http://www.facebook.com/mark.decker.940 Mark Decker

        Yes you can get into a regular sleep pattern with that. Ask most air traffic controllers about it. Ask military people about swing shifts. Ask oil filed people about it. There are many different workers that do the alternating schedules. The 24 hours off between gets you to readjust your sleep patterns.

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      • Paul J

        There isn’t even be a need for these guys to adjust their sleep time
        on the current schedule. The only difference would be they sleep at the
        station instead of at home. God forbid someone has to work 6 out 10 days, 3 of which they get to sleep overnight for 8hrs. As stated in the article by one of the city officials, changing to a 24hr schedule would reduce employee “engaged hours” by approx. 500 a year. How is this beneficial for the tax payer?

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      • jk

        Paul J. They work 6 on, 3 off…..ya dope. Not to mention no consideration for holidays or weekends. They are always engaged, but hey if you want an empty fire station at night, then I hope its not your loved ones needing help. If anything, Austin should be hiring more full time firefighters.

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  • mjbass

    Let the Chief be the Chief! This schedule benefits the city and the FD. It’s always the same council members that can’t get out of way of positive progressive action by those that have been hired for their experience and expertise. This Chief has proven to be a benefit to the city. Let him serve the city.

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  • Demo-man

    Austin doesn’t even need a full time department. Way larger city’s like Apple Valley have departments with just the chief and fire-marshal full time and the fire fighters are all paid on-call. They handle 4 times as many calls a year and have half the response time of Austin.

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    • mjbass

      Yep, they get and have to pay for 32 on call firefighters to show up for a false fire alarm. It is Not a savings to the community and results in longer response times.

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      • jk

        Do you people even read the article? The fire dept doesnt page all the part time guys. They page each group of 8 as need be coinciding with which full time group is on duty. Yet another cost saving measure that the chief installed.

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      • mjbass

        Re-read the post above mine. I was referring to other cities that are all on call or volunteer. They have delayed response times and compensate all responders on a call. Very inefficient.

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      • Demo-man

        Let me be clear Apple Valley mn has a better response time than Austin mn … Their average time is 4min 23 seconds from the time their paged till the time they are at the emergency.. Austin is 10 min plus.. The info is part of the national insurance data base that’s updated yearly..Apple Valley spends less on their fire budget per citizen then Austin wich is also public record. And they didn’t let half of their down town burn. There might bee a new chief at the wheel but there’s still a bunch of poorly trained out of shape Indians dragging the hoses.

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      • 55912

        Does Apple Valley pay off duty St. Paul and Minneapolis firefighters to sleep at their firestations? That would not work in Austin…we can’t count on off duty firefighters from bigger cities to be our “volunteers”. They can barely get enough paid on call firefighters in Austin as it is. Austin is not a metro suburb, so you are comparing apples to oranges. I would be more interested in seeing how we compare to cities like Albert Lea, Owatonna, etc.

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  • 306

    It is easy to judge from the sidelines. At this point applications are being accepted for the second time in 2013 for on-call firefighters.

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  • Austinwatch

    Like i said before, their job is very commendable and honorable, but my point is that the fire dept is never happy. The city council could approve the schedule change, and in a year or so they’ll want something else. You agree to take a job knowing what the hours are. They got rid of their old boss, so now they need something else to complain about? Nurses, doctors and police have critical jobs as well but we don’t hear them complain. Just be glad you have a job!

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